“…he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.”
JRR Tolkien, The Two Towers
It’s a dreich November morning in the Lakes and I’ve chosen Cam Crag (a grade 2 scramble) as a route up Glaramara because:
- I’ve done the route half a dozen times and I know the line. I can navigate from Langstrath to the summit and back down into Borrowdale even in low visibility (which is what this morning brings).
- It really is dreich, but I know the route is well within my limits. The geology is good, grippy, volcanic rock that I can trust even in the wet.
I park just past Stonethwaite school and follow the road into the village, whence it becomes a farm track running up into Langtsrath. It’s pleasant (if damp) going, winding up through old woodland, mist-shrouded and hung with moss. Where Stonethwaite Beck splits into two, I take the western fork, following Langstrath Beck out of the trees onto open fells. It’s wild country here; on a sunny day there would be picnickers and possibly swimmers where the stream broadens near Blackmoss Pot, but today it is bleak, grey and forbidding.
As the track crosses the flow to join the Cumbrian Way, I start to angle gently uphill. At the 200m contour, I turn my face to the heights and handrail Woof Gill up to Woof Stones. I pause on the southern side of the stones for a bite and a drink and to strap on my climbing helmet. The first 3 or 4 metres of the scramble start here; easy going on rough-textured rock – always with three points of contact – to warm up. I top out above Woof Stones and head across a long, flattish slab to the next stage of the scramble.
What follows is reconstructed from fractured memory, medical notes, and conversation with the Mountain Rescue paramedic who treated me on the scene. I cannot swear to its veracity as I have viewed these events through the prisms of injury, shock, relief and a great deal of morphine – I’m certain for instance that the search dogs were not allowed to lick my face, but that is how it appears in my mind’s eye in the romanticised afterglow of not dying. Luckily, this is a blog and not magical-realist fiction so I can just say so here rather than trying to cleverly construct narrative signals that explain this without stating it (if that’s your thing, I recommend Tim O’Brien’s astonishing Vietnam War short stories collection The Things They Carried. I digress). I’ve tried not to overplay the seriousness of my injuries nor indeed my stoicism in the face of them. Anything giving the impression of pragmatism is displacement activity to avoid thinking about how much trouble I’m in.
As I’m moving my right hand up toward the next hold, both feet flick out from under me – perhaps I’ve placed them both on moss that simply peels off the rock – and I’m left hanging on my left arm. I can’t get any purchase with my right hand or either of my feet. Eventually , my upper body just gives way and I fall. I drop 5 metres straight down onto uneven ground where I bounce down a steep, rock-studded slope for a further 30-40 metres. The world cartwheels around a fragile, little hub of pain, fear and panic. Toward the end of my tumble, my helmet is ripped off by the violence of my descent. At some point I pass out..
When I return to the world, I’m on my back, head pointing downslope. I can feel there’s something wrong with my ribs and when I look up, my right foot is flopping about horrifically. I lever myself upright and try to drag myself backwards into a position that will allow me to assess the situation. When I load my weight onto my arms, I discover that my right collar bone may be broken and that I can’t feel my left arm. Sitrep unfavourable. For the record and from my records:
- Left 4-10 rib fractures – these were managed supportively and have improved well
- Thoracic 6 vertebral body fracture – underwent surgical fixation
- Thoracic 5 + 6 and lumbar 1 + 4 transverse process fractures; sacrum 1 + 2 spinous process fractures – managed conservatively
- Right clavicle fracture – managed conservatively with a sling
- Left brachial plexus neuropraxia – no injury found on MRI – improving with physiotherapy
- Open right tibial fracture – managed operatively
(LGI Discharge notes)
In short, I traumatised the nerve cluster that works my left arm, broke my back, my right collar bone, seven ribs and my right leg (and punched my tibia out through my calf).
At one level, I know that I left a decent route description with my family and they’ll call Mountain Rescue if I’m not back by 17:00. At a rather more pressing level, I’m in pain and shock and some difficulty
My iPhone has survived so I try to summon rescue myself. No signal for a 999 call. Also, I notice it’s only 14:30. I’m not sure what time I fell. Elsewhere in the rucksack, my flexi flask burst during the fall – doubtless the litre of water there soaked up some impact that would have otherwise have been transmitted to my back. I have a flask of coffee, some sandwiches, a survival bag and my Buffalo belay jacket.
I swapped rucksacks this morning. My other Macpac sack had an emergency whistle built into the sternum strap. This one doesn’t. I haven’t transferred my first aid kit or my headtorch.
I manage to drag/push myself backwards into a position where my back is supported and my leg is in a straight line and elevated. I drink coffee. I eat sandwiches. I can’t get my legs into the survival bag because one of them is broken, but I get it underneath me to insulate myself from the ground. I can’t get my belay jacket on because my left arm is too unmanageable, but I get it across my shoulders to insulate myself from the sky. I can’t get my gloves back on because my left hand won’t work so I tuck them (and my cold hands) into the kangaroo pocket on my smock. Then I hunker down to wait for the cavalry. I am weatherproof but I am frightened, distressed and I have never felt so alone. I would not wish this situation on another living thing.
There is a saying that pain is weakness leaving the body. I know not its provenance and nor do I care – it is the hollow sound of someone selling you gym membership. The roiling wave of nausea that writhes up through you when one half of your broken tibia grates across the other half of your broken tibia is not weakness leaving the body. It is your body telling you that, this time, you may have bitten off more than you can chew without choking.
I slip in and out of consciousness for I know not how long. In a lucid moment, I find that it is raining, it is getting dark and there is blood dripping from my right trouser leg. Joy. Then at some point it is very dark and still raining and I try again for a 999 signal – I notice that it is around 20:30. In my deepening despair I fear they have called off the search until the morrow because the weather’s too grim or it’s just too dark and they don’t want to risk anyone else’s safety on difficult terrain at night. Fair enough, I think, and then I consider the prospect of a night out here alone and the possibility that hypothermia or blood loss might reach me before Mountain Rescue.
I have no sooner had this thought than out of the corner of my right eye, I see two dogs bounding past on the edge of torchlight and I hear voices. I cannot communicate how utterly full of relief I am right at this moment. For all the ruin in which I huddle, my entire body floods with gratitude and joy. I rear up on my shattered frame shouting “Help me, please help me, I’m here, please don’t leave me!” Somewhere in the darkness, a voice answers “It’s alright, keep shouting and we’ll find you.” Half in elation, half in agony, face puffed up with tears and snot, I call over and over “Help me, I’m here, help me, I’m here.” until my voice cracks and my world irises down to a little circle of headtorch glow and happy, licking muzzles. When the paramedic gets to me, I have toppled face down, I have no idea where my left arm is relative to the rest of me and my right leg is 3-4 inches shorter than my left. A multi-person shelter is pulled over me and after over 7 hours alone with my injuries, I dimly grasp that I am not going to die this time. Then the morphine arrives and I am cast free of this world’s shackles for a short while.
I can never adequately thank the good people (and hounds) of Keswick Mountain Rescue for my life. That anyone should give up their free time to look for me in such conditions is almost beyond my comprehension. Similarly I am indebted to the staff of the High Dependency Unit and Ward 22 of Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary, Ward 22 of Leeds General Infirmary and the physiotherapy team at St Luke’s Hospital for my treatment, care and continuing recovery. Mountain Rescue volunteers and the NHS are two things that should make us proud to be British.
One more (perhaps peculiar) thank you – to my helmet. I cannot absolutely swear that it saved my life, but looking at the grooves scratched into its dome by my fall, I’m very glad they weren’t in my skull. At the very best, it would have meant trying to keep it together with blood pouring down my face. A worst case doesn’t bear contemplation.
Some lessons to cut out and keep:
I now have a safety whistle in a pocket of all of my rucksacks. If you’re heading for the hills, leave a proper route description and return time with someone – Keswick MRT were able to find me as quickly as they did because they weren’t searching the whole of Glaramara. Headtorch! That was a stupid omission, and the strobe setting on my torch would have made me easier to find and may have been spotted earlier in my plight. If you’re scrambling, wear a helmet – it’s better to wear one and not need it than to need it and not be wearing one. If you enjoy any activity in the mountains, please make a donation to Mountain Rescue. You can donate to Mountain Rescue England and Wales or Scottish Mountain Rescue online. You never know when you might need them, whether or not the route is within your capability.
My pack (a Macpac Pitch) contained: Buffalo Belay jacket, OS OL Sheet 4, Silva mirror-sighting compass, Julbo sunglasses, Benchmade Presidio lock-knife, Highgear AltiTech 2 altimeter, Petzl Elios climbing helmet, iPhone, coffee, water, ham and pickle sandwiches, a KitKat. I wore Millet High Roc boots, Montane Vortex Stretch gaiters, Montane Terra XT pants, Montane Extreme smock. Most of my clothing was removed by the emergency services with scissors – it is difficult to resent this.